Covid is causing the first of the three major fall holidays to re-imagine itself for safe celebration. As we slither through October, the children in my orbit are planning costumes and asking how they are going to trick-or-treat during this pandemic. As usual, creativity abounds. And candy absolutely must be collected, so how to do it? It’s all about the candy, right?
I don’t remember much about Halloween from my childhood half a century ago and there are no photographs of my brother and me in costumes, but I have a memory of sorting candy and of UNICEF boxes full of pennies. Or was it dimes? Certainly, I liked getting candy, but I was picky about what I ate. Sorting it was more fun than eating it. I liked chocolate bars, Hershey’s kisses, and Tootsie Roll pops – only the cherry ones with a chocolate center. I didn’t like candy corn or licorice or malt balls or most of what turned up in my bag. Perhaps my parents ate what I didn’t like. They didn’t ration our candy, maybe because it was one of the few times in the year that we actually got candy. By the time I was in junior high and high school, I quit wandering around asking for candy and stayed home to hand it out, while eating my share.
I read that trick-or-treating only became a widespread practice in the 1930s, so by the time I was old enough to trick or treat in the 1950s, the custom had only been around for a couple of decades. During my lifetime, the holiday has expanded epidemically to include activities in which I seldom take part. For example, I don’t decorate our landscaping or attend wild costume parties. I don’t even carve pumpkins, although there is a pumpkin sitting on my front porch right now.
Why does Halloween exist? It seems like a strange holiday, dressing up in silly costumes and begging for candy. Originally associated with the night before All Saints’ Day, Halloween was believed to be a time when souls clustered close to the living world making people nervous. So, they’d light bonfires to keep ghosts away, and wear masks to prevent spirits from recognizing them. Masks! Such a good idea!
Going house to house asking for handouts evolved from being a custom of poor people looking for coins, to a custom of creatively-costumed children begging for candy. I can’t quite understand that evolution but maybe candy companies had something to do with the changes.
When we returned to the US from living overseas, our toddlers in tow, we thought we should participate in the American custom of dressing them in costumes and taking them around the neighborhood on Halloween. I tried to make costumes for them, but my efforts were not worthy of photographs, and since I was working full time, I didn’t have much energy or time for elaborately sewn creations. They were more interested in the candy. I was a reluctant participant in the silliness, feeling guilty about my lack of enthusiasm. I would have felt better if I could have handed out toothbrushes along with the candy, but I didn’t even know that custom existed until recently, and unlike dentists, I didn’t have access to bulk rates on toothbrushes.
Our daughter, Megan, seemed to particularly enjoy Halloween in the 1990s and 2000s. She and her friends would concoct creative costumes and wander in groups to collect candy, then come home and stuff themselves with their favorites, sharing some with me. When they were in middle school, I sometimes wandered around with them, staying at a distance, but keeping them in sight.
During my mother’s final five years of life, I’d bring her over to our house for Halloween evening and seat her in a chair close to the front door so she could hand out candy and enjoy looking at the costumed children who came calling. We’d play spooky music, keep the lights low, and I’d dress in witchy clothing to answer the door, eating too much chocolate myself as we waited for the doorbell to ring.
Once the children grew up and left home, Bruce and I invented an opportunity to celebrate Halloween in a different way. On Halloween night, we went out to dinner and a movie to avoid being home listening for the doorbell and giving away candy while we ate it. Motivated by thoughts of childhood obesity rates and the lack of dental care for so many children, I felt I just couldn’t be part of the problem.
There were times when dressing up in costume was part of some work-related event, or a party at the children’s school, so I always created the same persona – dressed in flowing black, with a long-haired gray wig and my Harry Potter sorting hat. For years, that’s how I thought about Halloween – black, the witch look, dinner and a movie.
This year, however, there will be no indoor dinner and no movie; all the theaters are closed. We retired to an isolated mountain, where there are no children coming door to door, since there are few lights, and they might encounter a bear. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, on a street where the houses are closer together, a plan is crystalizing for setting up candy stations, with homeowners sitting physically-distanced, and children being herded along to collect packets for their sacks. The candy collection carnival cannot be abandoned for a wicked virus!
I haven’t decided if I’ll be out there in witch mode to observe the reincarnation of Trick-or-Treating for Covid 2020. At least it will be outdoors. Will someone dress up as a giant virus? That might be something to see. With a crown on the reddish orb, protein spikes protruding menacingly… I’ll have to watch for that costume.